Book Summary: “Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West” by William Cronon


Title: Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West
Author: William Cronon
Scope: 3 stars
Readability: 4.5 stars
My personal rating: 5 stars
See more on my book rating system.

Topic of Book

Cronon writes about the history of one of the world’s great metropolis, Chicago, and how it was intimately linked to geography and economic growth of the entire Midwest.

My Comments:

Cronon’s book was a Finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and Winner of the Bancroft Prize. While narrowly focused on the history of Chicago and the American Midwest, Cronon gives compelling testimony to the important role that trade-based cities have on economic development and progress. Anyone interested in the role of cities in human history should read this book.

Key Take-aways

  • Cities and their rural hinterlands are not opposites. They are part of a larger economic system.
  • Chicago from the 1830s through the 1860s saw one of the most dramatic urban growths in world history.
  • The development of the American Midwest would not have been possible without a major city such as Chicago.
  • Chicago evolved in the one location in North America that offered access between the two great inland waterways, the Mississippi/Ohio/Missouri river basin and the Great Lakes/St. Lawrence waterway.
  • The building of the Erie Canal, one of America’s greatest infrastructure projects, was essential to the early development of Chicago.
  • The technological innovation of the railroad and the odd economics of rail transportation, that it is cheap to ship in one direction, but expensive in the other direction, made it essential to have one transportation entrepot for the entire region.
  • The railroad create a “Second Nature” that molded economic and urban growth as much as “First Nature”, or its natural geography

Important Quotes from Book

Cronon claims that Chicago was central to the development of the Midwest.

“Cities and country have a common history, so their stories are best told together.” (p xiv)

“I write on commodity markets… from the conviction that few economic institutions more powerfully affect human communities and natural ecosystems in the modern capitalist world.” (p xv)

“I describe one aspect of the frontier experience on a very macro scale: the expansion of a metropolitan economic into regions that had not previously been tightly bound to it markets, and the absorption of new peripheral areas into a capitalist orbit. Frontier areas lay on the periphery of the metropolitan economy, while cities like New York and London lay near its center. Chicago sat in between, on the boundary between East and West as those regions were defined in the nineteenth century.” (p xvi)

“The natural feature that first defined Chicago’s location was the river… this sluggish waterway provided one of the few sheltered spots for vessels seeking harbor… It was also a passage to the interior… the ridge sat atop one of the chief natural boundaries of North America, separating the greatest watershed east of the Rocky Mountains… one could paddle halfway across the continent, from the North Atlantic to the Gulf of Mexico… Thirteen thousand years earlier, it had been part of the terminal moraine at the edge of the great Ice Age glaciers.” (p 23-24)

“These postglacial migrations defined the region’s vegetational geography. Three of the continent’s most important biotic communities met each other in the lands north and west of Lake Michigan. Chicago stood in the borderland between the western prairies and eastern oak-hickory forests, and the lake gave it access to the white pines and other coniferous trees of the north wood. Grasslands and hardwoods and softwood forests were all within reach.” (p25)

Thinking that a canal might be built there, “The mid-1830s saw the most intense land speculation in American history.” (p 29)

“Taken as a group, the boosters offered a surprisingly coherent model of urban and regional growth. Unlike Turner, they saw the engine of western development in the symbiotic relationship between cities and their surrounding countrysides… Almost always they identified a list of supposed “natural advantages… Booster believed that climate, soils, vegetation, transportation routes, and other features of landscape all pointed toward key locations that nature had designated for urban greatness… The first included all the resources of the region which would center its trade on the city. The second comprised the transportation routes that would guide those resources to their natural marketplace. And the third… consisted of global climatic forces which had historically created great urban civilizations elsewhere in the world.” (p 34-36)

“For Turner and his followers, frontier development had been slow and evolutionary, with cities appearing only after a long period of rural agricultural growth. Cities marked the end of the frontier. For the boosters, on the other hand, western cities could and did appear much more suddenly. They grew in tandem with the countryside… When they argued that the city grew by drawing to itself the resources of an emerging region, they also implied that urban markets made rural development possible.” (p 47-48)

“Where human beings organize their economy around market exchange, trade between city and country will be among the most powerful forces influencing cultural geography and environment change. The ways people value the products of the soil and decide how much it costs to get those products to market, together shape the landscape we inhabit.” (p 50)

“To read von Thunen in this way, is suddenly to realize that one is reading Turner backwards, and that Turner’s frontier, far from being an isolated rural society, was in fact the expanding edge of the booster’s urban empire.” (p 50)

“Capital held one of the most important keys to metropolitan empire… Repeatedly in the nineteenth century, western cities came into being when eastern capital create remote colonies in landscapes that as yet contained relatively few people.” (p 50)

“A kind of ‘second nature’ designed by people and ‘improved’ toward human ends, gradually emerged atop the original landscape.” (p 56)

“canals and railroads finally proved more important in building Chicago and other cities of the Great West. Second nature defined the corridors of commerce at least as much as first nature.” (p 57)

Early Chicago grew because farmers could get higher prices there than river towns, because Chicago had access to the Great Lakes… What the farmers found in Chicago was the western outpost of a metropolitan economy centered on the great cities of Europe and the American Northeast… the lakes, the Erie Canal and the Hudson river gave it better access to eastern markets, especially those of New York.” (p 60-1)

“most of what farmers bought in Chicago during the early years came not from the city itself but from the Northeast. Chicago’s advantage in selling such merchandise derived from its favorable price structure. Its merchants could buy goods at eastern wholesale process in ship-size quantities with no markup for expensive land transport. For the same reasons, they could also offer the best prices in the region for farm produce moving east. Low prices for eastern goods, and high prices for western one: the combination was a sure recipe for success.” (p 61)

“Without New York, the natural advantages of Great Lakes shipping would have meant little. Had New Orleans, and not New York, been the chief entrepot between Europe and North America, the evolution of western trade would surely have followed a different path.” (p 62)

During first season after completion of Illinois and Michigan Canal in 1848, Chicago’s corn shipments increased eight-fold. This was at the expense of St. Louis. “The canal almost instantly expanded Chicago’s hinterland southward to the Mississippi River just above St. Louis. “(p 64-65)

“The decade of the 1850s saw some of the most rapid railroad expansion in American history… By 1860, eastern investors and Chicago railroad managers had succeeded in imposing a new geography on the western landscape.” (p 68)

“Compared with earlier transport systems – lakes, rivers, and canals, on the one hand, and rural roads, on the other – railroads exhibited several key innovations. For one, they broke much more radically with geography… invulnerability to mud as its single greatest attraction… The railroads also abbreviated many of the worst effects of winter. The period from November to April had always been the dullest season of the business year… No earlier invention had so fundamentally altered people’s expectations of how long it took to travel between two distant points.” (p 74-76)

“Even more striking was the accelerated flow of information after the arrival of the telegraph in 1848: messages that had once taken weeks to travel between Chicago and the East Coast now took minutes and seconds… Because people experience distance more in hours than in miles, New York, Chicago and the Great West quite literally grew closer as the line of wire and rail proliferated among them.  Once farmers had access to a railroad, most no longer thought it worth their while to spend a week or move driving a team of horses to sell their crops in Chicago” (p 76)

“The railroad broke this age-old restrictive relationship between biological energy and movement, much as the steamboat had done for water transport several decades earlier… Locomotives were not more efficient than horse, but they could consume vastly greater quantities of fuel much more quickly, and thus had much higher limits for work, speed, and endurance.” (p 80)

“The most important feature of the new geography of capital was Chicago’s location at the breaking point between eastern and western rail networks… western lines provided service east of the city, so any freight or passengers bound for the East Coast had to switch railroads in Chicago.” (p83, 86)

“Railroads were not the only carriers competing to haul western farm produce to the Northeast. Ships continued to do so as well. Despite their older technology, they were intrinsically cheaper to run than railroads, largely because the buoyancy and lower friction of water travel required less energy consumption… Both types of ship enjoyed the enormous advantage of not having the maintain a right of way. The capital for harbor improvements usually came from government subsidies, and the lakes themselves were free… except at the height of harvest season (and in winter), lake rates from Chicago to New York were typically 15 to 20 percent lower than comparable rail rates.” (p 86-87)

This forced eastern rail lines from Chicago to keep lower prices compared to inland rail lines.

Chicago’s harbor gave low-cost shippers the cheapest transfer point from rail to ship in the Midwest.

Western railroads found it more cost-effective to transport grain from farmers to Chicago than any other mid-point city, so they charged less for a longer trip.

“East of the city, the railroads were known as ‘trunk’ lines: low-cost high-volume miles to New York City. West of the city, the visual metaphor of the railroad map changed from trunk to fan, with lines diverging like rays from a central point to spread hundreds of mile north and south before continuing their westward trend. The roads making up this metaphorical fan were high-cost, low-volume and noncompetitive. The intersection of the trunk and fan was the essential geographical fact of Chicago’s location… Chicago became the link that bound the different worlds of east and west into a single system… Chicago became the principal wholesale market for the entire midcontinent.” (p 90-1)

Rest of book focuses on the following commodities that shaped Chicago and the Midwest:

  • Grains from Great Plains
  • Lumber from Northern woods
  • Meat

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